I’ve been meaning to do a piece on this for a few days and this article http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2010/mar/01/publishing-houses-editors in today’s Guardian has prompted me to get on with it.
“The great publishing giants and their old ways are increasingly redundant. And yet there is still the inescapable fact that writers sit alone in rooms, putting words on paper, or on screens.” writes Robert McCrum, and goes on to discuss the ideas of Jason Epstein. “In respect of “the difficult, solitary work of literary creation”, Epstein says “the cost of entry for future publishers will be minimal” without the overheads of traditional, multilayered management. The devolution of gatekeeping from centralised corporate publishers, he argues, has already begun, with the emergence of “semi-autonomous editorial units” (what some people call “imprints”). These, Epstein believes, indicate the way of the future. In other words, whatever the innovation on the instrumental side of the delivery system, there will still have to be a measure of mediation, or gatekeeping.”
To me this suggests that McCrum thinks that writers need to sit alone being literary, and they will still need publishers and editors to midwife their work. Despite the technological revolution only those chosen by publishers and editors will be allowed to express themselves with any success in the marketplace. This view, although pretending to be daring, still allows the old paradigm to stay firmly in place. Writers write. Publishers chose which writers they will publish and the public gets to chose from that selection.
There is certainly a revolution in publishing going on. Self publishing or indie publishing is now a story. The mainstream media are covering its rise with degrees of enthusiasm. There is a fear that the market will be swamped with rubbish. How will anyone ever find anything good in that mass of self indulgent twaddle? It will be lamentable, surely?
I don’t think so. I think it is going to be great, for both readers and writers.
I suggest those who are afraid of the potential evils of this situation should take a trip to a farmer’s market. Where is the mediation, the gatekeeping there? The farmers dset up their stalls which they rent for a nominal fee. There is no gatekeeping except that they have to sell their own produce. They may not sell anyone else’s produce. They interact directly with their public. They hand sell to them. It is their responsibility that their goods are of a standard to attract discerning and sophisticated consumers. If the stuff is not good enough it will not sell and they will make a lost. They have taken the risk and they will get the return if they deliver the right material. There is no publisher type intermediary telling they may not sell their vegetables or home made chutneys. No gatekeeper.
This is how it happens at the simplest level. But a savvy stall-holder will add recommendations to her stall. She will paste up that review in the local paper that said “Cressida’s spicy banana chutney is the best chutney I have ever tasted.” And if she is selling online as well, she will have a section where people can review and evaluate her products. She will also be on Twitter and Facebook or any specialist foodie social network so that she can spread the word about her products and let the public judge them for themselves. This is how writers are going to do things without publishers.
McCrum mentions the innate conservatism of writing and reading books. Farming is equally conservative, but small farms have found it very hard to compete with big farms, and have had to think on their feet. In short to survive they have had to become entrepreneurial. Farmers markets are a fantastic example of this.
Now consider this: how do you find a good restaurant? You look for an independent restaurant guide either online or in book form. Anyone can open a restaurant, but only the good ones get the glowing reviews in the “Good Food Guide” or Michelin stars. Any one can self publish a book but I reckon in the future only the good ones will get the reviews which will pull people to the books. And I think trustworthy review sites will be crucial to how readers find the books they want to read. Amazon is already helping readers sort the good from the bad, as are book reviewing blogs started by enthusiastic readers.
So there will be gatekeepers in the future but the gatekeepers will different: they will be the consumers themselves.